Moth Studio (Building) / Adam Maida (Mural) / Courtesy: Serial
As promised, Episode Three of Serial's Cleveland-based third season — "one courthouse told week by week" — looks at very high-profile cases that made national news.
Though the episode is focused centrally on the case of Emirius Spencer
, a Euclid man who was beaten by off-duty police officers in December, 2016, after they found a blunt in his pocket, the episode's broader theme of community-police relations means that host Sarah Koenig touches on both the Michael Brelo #137shots debacle and the death of Tamir Rice.
The episode features comments from Samaria Rice, who laughs out loud when a police officer asks at a public forum what community members can do to help police officers do their jobs better. For Rice, the question is absurd: It's not the community's responsibility to ensure that cops stop beating and killing black people. Like many others, she wants to see more accountability for officers.
Later, Koenig speaks with brash former police union boss Steve Loomis, who once again articulates the belief that cops can do no wrong and that, improbably, police reform must come from the community itself. He repeats ugly comments he's made in the past about Tamir being a "product of the streets" and that the 12-year-old's behavior inevitably led to his death.
These interviews illustrate the deep chasm and lack of trust between the police and the residents they are meant to protect. The chasm that should be familiar to Cleveland residents, who have been following the consent decree imposed by the U.S. Department of Justice after they revealed a pattern of unconstitutional behavior in a report released weeks after Tamir's death. Koenig cites stats, too, which found that after a prominent case of police brutality in Milwaukee, 9-1-1 calls decreased dramatically and the murder rate rose. The police actions led to a "spirit of legal cynicism" in the community.
The Euclid case, though, dominates most of the episode's second half. One revelatory tidbit: Euclid and Broadview Heights are the only municipalities in Cuyahoga County where the possession of any
amount of marijuana, including a single blunt, is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a fine and up to six months in jail.
Officers found the blunt on Emirius Spencer when they patted him down for weapons without probable cause. (Spencer was in his own apartment complex, knocking on a neighbor's door, hoping to bum a cigarette.)
Attorneys Paul Cristallo, and later Spiro Gonakis, want to get Spencer a settlement for his beating, but first they have to plead to criminal charges so that the city of Euclid won't suspect a pending civil suit. Cristallo, who used to make caboodles of money defending cops, tells Koenig that if Euclid sniffs out his involvment — he'd also represented the victims' families in the Brelo case — they'd immediately circle the wagons, dig in their heels and lawyer up. He pushes back on the idea that cities and police departments are able and willing resolve issues of officer conduct internally, without outside intervention or public lawsuits.
"They don't own it. They lawyer up," Cristallo says. "I have zero faith [that they can improve on their own], based on my experience."
Cristallo's experience becomes the most important and memorable moment of the episode. When he describes to Koenig how Euclid prosecutors are working to screw over Spencer — among other things, curating the police "script" with the judge, including inventing testimony, to produce an airtight defense for the cops — Cristallo reluctantly admits that he did the same thing when he defended cops. It's one step shy of planting evidence, and produces the same result.
"You're not proud of it, you know?" He says. "I'm not proud of that."
Koenig, then, supplies the moral of the story:
"Of course it's 'upsettedness' when a police officer lies," she says, referencing a Cristallo comment. "What's more upsetting is when a system of laws and procedures kicks in to support and sanitize those lies, so it looks and sounds as if justice is happening. If Erimius wants these officers to be held accountable ... the criminal court is probably the last place he should look for help."
Emirius Spencer's case will continue in Episode Four next week. It's revealed near the end of Episode Three that one of the officers who beat Spencer was Michael Amiott, who was later fired
from the Euclid Police Department when a video that captured him violently beating a black man named Richard Hubbard III after a traffic stop went viral.